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Correct exposure is essential to successful photography, and an understanding of exposure and light metering is a

core skill for anyone wishing to explore the art of photography.


Most photographers rely almost exclusively on the automatic lightmeter in their camera to produce an accurate
exposure, and under most circumstances this is not a problem. The through-the-lens (TT! multi-segment evaluative
lightmeters found on most modern good "uality cameras are very sophisticated, and can cope with most situations
"uite ade"uately. #owever even the best meter can be fooled by unusual lighting conditions or very high contrast
scenes into producing under- or over-exposed images.
$or example, if you%ve ever take a photograph of someone standing in front of a brightly lit window, you%ll probably
have found that you can see the pattern on the curtains but that the sub&ect is far too dark. This is because the
lightmeter was fooled by the bright light from the window and the shot was under-exposed.
'imilarly if you%ve ever taken a photo of something light against a dark background you%ve probably found that the
background looked lighter than it should and the main sub&ect was pale and burned out. (gain the lightmeter has
been confused by the unusual background, but this time the shot is over-exposed.
)n order to understand how this happens and accurately correct it, it is necessary to know how lightmeters operate,
and the rules by which exposure is calculated. *on%t worry, there%s no maths involved, and it%s a lot simpler than you
might think.
Take a look at this picture+
,hat you see there is a nice scene of some fishing boats, with a good tonal range, plenty of colour and some nice
late-evening sunlight. ,hat your camera%s lightmeter sees is this+
Try it out for yourself+ copy the fishing boat scene onto your hard drive. 'tart up your image editing software and
open both pictures. ightmeters only see in black and white, so reduce the saturation of the fishing boat shot to -ero.
.ext, add a /aussian blur set at its maximum level, so that the whole picture is reduced to a field of grey. 0se the
eyedropper tool to measure the 1/2 colour value of the resulting tone. 3ou should find that it is a mid-tone grey with
an 1/2 value of around 456,456,456.
)t%s an interesting and curious fact that any average scene reflects 47 per cent of the light falling on it. ook out of
your window, and unless you live in (ntarctica the scene you see is reflecting exactly the same amount of light as the
scene out of my window. That 47 per cent reflection is exactly the same as a mid-tone grey, mid-way between black
and white.
ight meters are calibrated with this fact in mind. ,hen your camera takes a light reading, the meter averages the
scene and ad&usts the exposure to produce that mid-tone grey (or 45 per cent luminance, but that%s another
discussion altogether!. )f you point the camera at a black stage curtain, it will try to make the black into a mid-tone
grey, so it will over-expose. )f you point it at snow it will try to make the white into grey, so it will under-expose.
)n 4898-:; the pioneering photographers (nsel (dams and $red (rcher developed (no pun intended! an exposure
system based on this fact, a system that is still used today. )t is called the <one system, and is "uite possibly the
most useful piece of photographic knowledge you%ll ever learn. There are several variations on the original system,
but )%ll go with the one that is easiest to understand.
'tarting with 47 per cent grey as the mid-point, the system divides all the tones between black and white into 44
-ones, numbered ;-4;. <one ; is featureless black with no details visible, which in your image editor would have an
1/2 value of ;,;,;. <one 4; is pure white with no details visible, and an 12/ value of 5==,5==,5==. The mid-tone 47
per cent grey is -one =, and should have an 1/2 value of about 456,456,456.
Theses -ones represent exposure values, or >?. The difference between one -one and the next is e"uivalent to the
difference between one exposure setting and another one exactly one stop higher or lower.
This is probably a good time to take a slight detour and explain how exposure is controlled.
>xposure is set by ad&usting two settings@ aperture and shutter speed. 2etween them they control the amount of light
that hits the sensor (or film! when the shot is taken.
'hutter speed is fairly self explanatory, it is simply the amount of time that the sensor is exposed to light. This is
usually controlled by an electrically operated mechanical shutter in front of the sensor that opens and closes very
"uickly for a precisely measured period of time, usually in the order of a few hundredths of a second. Abviously a
shutter speed twice as long lets in twice as much light, one half as long half as much.
The aperture is also literally &ust that@ a hole through which light passes on its way to the sensor. The diameter of that
hole can be ad&usted to precisely calibrated si-es. Abviously a smaller hole lets in less light, and a larger hole lets in
more.
These calibrated aperture si-es, for largely historical reasons, are called stops, or f-stops. (n aperture setting one
stop larger lets in twice as much light. $or reasons that are both historical and horribly mathematical, the standard
full-stop aperture settings that you are most likely to encounter go f4.7, f5, f5.7, f:, f=.B f7, f44, f4B and f55.
Confusingly the smaller numbers refer to larger apertures, and the larger numbers to smaller ones. Many cameras
can set apertures in increments of 4C9rd of a stop, but these nine numbers are the ones to remember.
et%s take an example. 3ou set your camera to automatic, point it at a scene and take a light reading. $or the sake of
argument, say your camera%s lightmeter sets an aperture of f7 and 4C5;;th of a second. 3ou can produce the same
exposure by increasing the aperture by one stop to f=.B and halving the shutter speed to 4C:;;th of a second,
because this lets the same amount of light through to the sensor. 'imilarly, reducing the aperture to f44 and setting
the shutter speed to 4C4;;th of a second will also produce the same exposure.
#owever if you alter one setting without altering the other you will change the exposure. )n our example, changing the
aperture to f=.B but leaving the shutter speed at 4C5;;th of a second will increase the exposure by one stop, or one
>?, making the picture brighter. *ecreasing the aperture to f44 will reduce the exposure by one >?, making the
picture darker.
'imilarly, changing the shutter speed while leaving the aperture alone will also change the exposure. *ouble the
shutter speed to 4C:;;th at f7 and you reduce the exposure by one stop, halve the speed to 4C4;;th and you
increase the exposure by one stop. This is also how exposure (>?! compensation works.
et%s go back to the -one system we were discussing earlier. 1emember that each step on the chart represents one
stop or >?. (ltering the camera%s exposure by one stop moves the overall brightness of the scene by one -one. This
allows us to set the exposure precisely to produce the correct tones in an image.
An this chart, which was originally developed for black and white photography and printing, the -ones are roughly
e"uivalent to the following scene elements (adapted from (dams% descriptions!+
Zone 0 - Dure black, no details or texture visible.
Zone 1 - 2lack tone but no texture. This is normally as black as you want to get in a picture.
Zone 2 - $irst hint of texture and detail, very deep shadow.
Zone 3 - *ark materials, details visible.
Zone 4 - *ark foliage. *ark stone. andscape shadow. 'hadow on portraits in sunlight.
Zone 5 - Clear north sky. *ark skin. /rey stone. ,eathered wood. 47 per cent mid grey.
Zone 6 - (verage Caucasian skin value. ight stone. 'hadows in sunlit snow.
Zone 7 - ?ery light skin. ight grey ob&ects. 'now with side lighting.
Zone 8 - ,hite with texture. 'now in shade. #ighlights on Caucasian skin.
Zone 9 - /laring white surfaces. 'now in flat sunlight. ,hite without texture.
Zone 10 - ight sources, reflections of sunlight on metal. Dure white.
To use this system effectively, it really helps to have a spot meter. This is a lightmeter that measures light from a very
narrow angle, typically &ust two or three degrees in the centre of the frame. #and-held spot meters are best, but they
are very expensive. #owever many digital cameras these days have spot metering as a built-in option. )f your camera
has a setting that looks like either of these, you%re in luck.
)f you don%t have a spot meter you can get around this to a certain extent by -ooming in on the area to be metered, or
holding your camera closer to it, and noting down the exposure reading. )t%s not ideal, but it can work.
$or our troublesome backlit portrait shot, we can use the spot meter to take a reading from the sub&ect%s face. ,e
know that the lightmeter will give a reading that would make the face mid-tone grey, which is -one five. #owever from
the -one chart we know that average Caucasian skin should be -one six, so we need to increase the spot metered
exposure by one stop, in this case from 4C9;th at f=.B to 4C9;th at f:. )n the resulting shot the background details are
all burned out, but the sub&ect is correctly exposed.
$or the over-exposed photo of the car on the black background, we can use a similar but different approach. 'pot
metering the background gives an exposure setting of 4C9rd sec at f=.B to render it as -one five mid-grey. 2y reducing
that exposure by four stops to 4C9rd at f55 we can make the background come out as it should be, -one one black.
The -one exposure system can help you with all difficult exposures, but it can also vastly improve even your general
photography. earning to think of images in terms of the -one system will encourage you to take more care with your
shots, and also to become more creative. Control over exposure is the primary creative tool of the photographer, and
learning how to use it will make the difference between mere snapshots and artistic photographs. This system has
been used by professional photographers for over B; years. 0sed properly, it can help to improve your photography
immensely, probably more than any other single techni"ue.
Note: )%ve made a card that can be printed out at 4;x4=cm which has the -one system chart on it. 3ou can download
this reference card by clicking here.